A hunt for heroes

Quecreek miners visit county, enjoy hunt for geese

Quecreek miners visit county, enjoy hunt for geese

January 20, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

President Bush saluted their courage. Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey spotlighted their horrific ordeal and miraculous survival.

They've been portrayed in a novel and a made-for-TV movie, photographed by famous photographer Annie Leibovitz, and feted at NASCAR races, pro football games and the Miss America pageant.

But for the Pennsylvania miners who were trapped for days last July in a flooded mine shaft, a goose hunt near Hagerstown was a breath of fresh air.

"It was fantastic," mine crew leader Randy Fogle said during a recent phone interview. "The guides from Potomac Outfitters were great, the location was beautiful and Joe Byers was very nice."


Byers, of Hagerstown, an avid outdoorsman, freelance writer and hunting field editor for Heartland USA magazine, organized and hosted the September 2002 goose hunt for eight of the nine miners who spent 77 hours trapped 240 feet underground in the cramped and flooded Quecreek Mine in Somerset, Pa.

"We were just normal people going to work one day and something terrible happened," Fogle said.

On July 24, the miners drilled through the wall of an abandoned adjacent mine - which their map showed to be 300 feet away - and unleashed up to 60 million gallons of water into their mine shaft.

Fogle and crew members John "Ung" Unger, Robert "Boogie" Pugh, Ron "Hound Dog" Hileman, Tom "Tucker" Foy, Mark "Mo" Popernack, Dennis "Harpo" Hall, Blaine Mayhugh and John Phillips found an air pocket and huddled together for warmth until rescuers bored a hole through the earth and pulled them to safety July 28.

None of the men was seriously injured.

"Our lives just changed forever," Fogle said. "We got a second chance."

Disney's ABC television network aired a movie about the mining accident last November, and a book about the ordeal was released that month. Though the media blitz has been difficult for some of the miners, they are thankful for the opportunities they've been given since the accident, Fogle said.

"Everything we've done has been just fantastic because it's nothing we ever had the opportunity to do before," he said.

'Friendly experience'

An early nuisance goose season in Maryland offered an interesting outing for the miners - and a great story for Byers - at a time when few hunting opportunities are available, he said.

"I wanted to plan something that would be an escape for them," Byers said. "I wanted to make it a friendly experience."

He quietly arranged the goose hunt at Linden Hall farm just south of Hagerstown after learning that six of the nine miners subscribed to Heartland USA.

"I worried that other kinds of publicity would jeopardize my ability to go forward with the project," said Byers, whose goose hunt article and photographs were published in the November/December 2002 edition of Heartland USA.

Byers doubted at first that he would get to meet the miners because the Walt Disney Co. had purchased - for $150,000 per miner - the media rights to the Quecreek story, and all press access required prior approval, he said.

But with a tight deadline looming, Byers began planning the hunt despite its uncertainty.

"I had the whole hunt organized before I even talked to the people doing it," he said.

Byers called on goose hunting specialists Steve Davis and Kevin Morgan of Potomac Outfitters in Hagerstown to help work out the logistics of the outing. Washington County Sheriff Charles F. Mades agreed to provide a police escort from the Mason-Dixon line on the Pennsylvania border into Hagerstown, Byers said.

Byers arranged for the miners to get Maryland hunting licenses at Dick's Sporting Goods. The Washington County Sportsman's Association near Clear Spring would provide lodging at its clubhouse on Polecat Hollow Road and a Thanksgiving-style meal for the miners the night before the hunt.

B.P. Lesky Distributing Co. of Hagerstown donated beverages, Potomac Outfitters provided guides and decoys and several national hunting supply companies contributed goose calls, hats, head nets and videotapes, Byers said.

Dick's Sporting Goods also donated $500 to help cover expenses, and store manager Jim Vanech personally assisted each miner with his licensing paperwork, Byers said.

"People were very enthusiastic and willing to participate," he said.

A representative from ABC-TV/Disney gave Heartland USA the go-ahead about 10 days after a proposal was submitted, and Byers traveled to the Somerset County (Pa.) Fair last August to meet the miners and give them hunt invitations and directions, he said.

"They all seemed interested in doing it," Byers said.

Miner John Phillips couldn't participate because he had a family commitment.

Geese elusive

Byers' only concern was geese - or lack of them. As of three days before the Sept. 5, 2002, hunt, the waterfowl had been spotted only at a field along U.S. 40 that was not hunter-friendly.

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